Innovation is a social process

Ideas don’t exist in an individuals head. Rather they exist between people, in conversations, according to Jules EvansI love this concept as it brings into focus one of the things I’ve been reflecting on recently, namely that innovation is increasingly a social process, where social means both ‘doing good’ and also ‘being connected’.  Even though these are very different meanings of the word ‘social’, I think they are both totally interconnected.

For natural writers or conversationalists (of which I would say I am neither particularly) I presume they learn new ideas through verbal conversations or through their writing. However I have always found words, whether written or verbal, a bit a bit too much like hard work.

“Connect on your similarities and benefit from your differences.” Valdis Krebs

As a consequence I would go so far as to say that I didn’t really have strong opinions about anything until about 2006 when I started blogging and tweeting. All of a sudden it essentially forced me to figure out what I believe, as the act of writing publically forced me to figure out what I wanted to say. Of course it’s never possible to always get it right but it was extremely valuable to me for that reason alone.

Anyway, I have become increasingly frustrated with the word innovation recently (see previous post on that here), but more interested (or even obsessed) in networks (i.e. being connected). In addition we have been working quite a bit on innovations in giving (i.e. doing good) on a recent project with 28 different charities as part of a very interesting programme with Nesta which has been great, and demonstrated a much more human component to what it means to innovate.

“A new idea is nothing more or less than the combination of old elements.” James Webb Young

Now I realize that these two very different meanings of the word ‘social’ are two sides of the same coin. If we define innovation simply as having new ideas that create positive impact, then I argue that any new idea only comes through conversations with others, and having positive impact only comes from the intention of doing good.

And so perhaps it’s time for organisations to stop obsessing about innovation and trying to institutionalize it, through strategies and departments. Rather innovation is a byproduct or smart people given the right tools and the space to learn from each other, figure out what they really believe together, and then are able to act on it. Now perhaps that does sound like something worth striving for after all.

by Roland


  1. Innovation only happens when you have clarity of purpose and freedom of choice. Take away either of these ingredients and innovation can’t take place.

    I think this is why networks and communities are the environments where innovation happens most effectively. A group of people without clarity of purpose isn’t a community, it’s an incoherent crowd. A group without freedom of choice isn’t a network, it’s a bureaucracy.

    If innovation is the inevitable result of networks and communities, it follows that the mission of anyone seeking to create more innovation is to promote both freedom of choice and clarity of purpose. We need to be both more together and more free.

    Taking this a little further, what we’re really seeking is honesty, tolerance and autonomy. As a society, both in our personal lives and our professional lives, if we can achieve that, we’ll innovate naturally.

  2. Thanks for your comment Aran. Agree with your sentiment though am reminded of a former colleague who used to say “give me the freedom of a tightly defined brief”. In other words having constraints isn’t always a bad thing. Cheers, Roland

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